When bad news goes unnoticed

With the rest of Europe preoccupied with the van Rompuy and Ashton appointments, the French Europe Minister, Pierre Lellouche, picked the best time to announce some bad news: there will no joint Franco-German minister

ECFR Alumni · Former Senior Policy Fellow

Everyone
knows that the best time to announce bad news is when no one is listening. The
French Europe Minister, Pierre Lellouche, may have had this in mind when, with
Europe preoccupied with the appointment of the relatively unknown figures of
Herman van Rompuy and Catherine
Ashton as the new leaders of the EU, he announced that France and Germany had
abandoned the idea of creating a new position of a joint Franco-German
minister. After all, he may have thought, after one piece of bad news for Europe, no one will notice another.

The
most striking thing about Lellouche’s announcement last Thursday, apart from
its timing, was the way he distanced himself from the proposal as if it was
someone else’s idea. In fact, Lellouche had himself strongly lobbied for it to
become reality on the occasion of the 46th Anniversary of the Elysée Treaty in
January. The proposed new minister would have attended cabinet meetings in both
France and Germany and co-ordinated common security, energy, economic and
social policy.

The
idea behind the proposal was to demonstrate that, twenty years after the fall
of the Berlin Wall, the Franco-German tandem was still in good working order. Paris was even prepared to make the 11th November – which
until now has commemorated the battle of Verdun
in World War I – into a ‘Franco-German Friendship’ day. In a society as
history-conscious as France,
this would have been a huge symbolical gesture – which is perhaps why it didn’t
happen in the end.

Now
the idea of a joint minister has also been abandoned. The truth is, the
symbolism of the Franco-German relationship that once drove European
integration has become empty. In fact, the French were so desperate to make a
symbolic gesture precisely to hide the lack of agreement with Germany on
substance. The French fear that, with Europe getting bigger and more
complicated and Germany
feeling increasingly strong on its own, the Germans are gradually losing
interest in the European project. The Germans, on the other hand, have been
getting more and more impatient with what they see as a lack of French
seriousness about policy.

The
suggestion of a Franco-German Minister was a sincere attempt by the French to
recreate momentum towards further political integration in Europe.
It was an interesting reverse of the situation in 1994, when, in the
Schäuble-Lamers paper, Germany
proposed the idea of a ‘core Europe’, which France rejected. This time, Germany did not openly reject the proposal as France did in 1994, but it was so reluctant to
pursue it that France
eventually decided to quietly abandon it.

There
are, of course, genuine legal problems with the idea of a Franco-German
ministerial post. In Germany,
for example, the cabinet does not have the same status as it does in France. The
French cabinet, on the other hand, is not accountable to the parliament in the
same way as the German cabinet is. It may also have been difficult to precisely
define the role of such a ministerial post. But France
and Germany
have overcome much bigger problems in the past in order to make European
integration happen. Those days, however, are apparently long gone. “There is
more that divides us than what unites us”, as a German civil servant recently
put it. It seems that the Germans had no desire to paper over these differences
by creating a new symbol of Franco-German unity. At least they were being
honest.

 

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Author

ECFR Alumni · Former Senior Policy Fellow